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Project-Based Company Brings Together Dancers and Musicians

Journey choreographed by Diane Coburn Bruning in performance with Chamber Dance Project, featuring Luz San Miguel and Davit Hovhannisyan. Photo by Eduardo Patino.

Choreographer Diane Coburn Bruning has a different kind of vision for her Chamber Dance Project. Though she relocated the project-based company from New York City to Washington, DC several years ago, her focus remains on creating collaborations between classically-trained ballet dancers and other contemporary artists to share in intimate venues with live music. This summer, the artistic director brings together dancers from Cincinnati, Kansas City, Milwaukee and Washington Ballets for a condensed period of time. The company's 2017 season show titled Ballet Brass & Song opens this weekend, and features works by Jennifer Archibald, Jorge Amarante, and a world premiere by Coburn Bruning herself. We caught up with her last week to hear more about her company's mission.


What's it like to bring dancers together from so many different backgrounds for such a short period of time? Do you work with the same dancers again and again?

Yes, because I think that's where you can go deeper. That said, we brought in two new dancers this year (Kansas City Ballet's Angelina Sansone and Cincinnati Ballet's Patric Palkens). I'm hoping to expand to about 10 dancers. As a project company, it's built into the model that we're bringing people together from all different classical ballet backgrounds to work with choreographers and musicians in a very synergetic way. To me that's of great interest, and I think to the dancers too, to not be with the same people and with taped music. This is a way for dancers to explore and bust out in the summer, when they would otherwise be on layoff. We employ them in the January layoff and then in the summer layoff.



Photo Courtesy of Tim Coburn Diane Coburn Bruning

If your company uses dancers only during their layoff periods, what do you work on for the rest of the year?

We have a resident string quartet—we're not a separate company, but dancers and musicians working together. So during the year we have different evenings and events and open rehearsals with the quartet. We hire dancers during their layoffs, but we have our own musicians who we utilize throughout the year. And we have workshops where we have audience members create things on the spot, with the musicians reconstructing. Any way we can get people to get into the process is of great interest to me, because I'm a creative artist.

Your upcoming show, Ballet Brass & Song 2017, includes the world premiere of your Songs by Cole, set to the music of jazz legend Cole Porter. How did you choose to work with Porter's music?

Working with Cole Porter music is a reaction to working with a very intense and dark contemporary score by Brooklyn-based composer Bryce Desner on my last piece. I realized that for my next project I wanted to use something lighter, and use the music of the 20s and 30s. It was just a desire to go to the other side of the spectrum of my work.

Your company's mission focuses on intimate audience interactions in small venues. This is not the mission of most ballet companies. How have audiences responded?

There are a lot of people doing great work in contemporary ballet. And we do not claim to be unique. What's unique is that we work with live musicians, and our dedication is on new and contemporary work and artists, which means composers, artists, choreographers, dancers and designers. Because all work that was created was once contemporary. When Petipa created Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty, that was contemporary art. So where's the contemporary art of our time? We don't get it by reaching backwards, we get it by moving forward and working with the artists of our time. Sometimes that leads to sublime work and sometimes not, but my commitment is to the voices of our times.

Photo by Lambtron, via Wikimedia Commons

Can you superglue your vamp? I am new to pointe and don't know where to apply it. —Amanda

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Pointe Stars

The tambourine variation from La Esmeralda is a competition favorite, but the full pas de deux isn't seen as often. That's a shame, because it contains some of the most technically challenging classical choreography to be found. In this video, Yuan Yuan Tan and Felipe Diaz take on this balletic feat with amazing power and ease.

Tan, who was awarded a permanent contract with San Francisco Ballet after performing this role as a guest artist in 1995, is a youthful but commanding presence. Her extensions crawl right up to her ear, and she rises from deep lunges en pointe to arabesque without ever seeming to get tired. After an endless series of promenades (4:00), Tan again lunges low to the floor and then teasingly runs away from Diaz, inviting him to follow her. In her variation, she oozes gypsy spunk, enticing the audience with dramatic details. She takes the variation at a quick pace, blending each movement smoothly into the next.

Diaz, who was a soloist with SFB and is now a ballet master for the company, shines in his own right. The adagio reveals his partnering prowess. From 2:15—2:35, Diaz supports Tan almost continuously in a string of carries and lifts–and his variation is chock full of bravura. All the way through the coda, the technical fireworks in this pas de deux never stop coming. We can't get enough! Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

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Tanaquil Le Clercq at the 1967 book signing. Reprinted with permission from Dance Magazine.

Ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq may have been known for her long-limbed dancing and versatile grace, but it turns out that her renown didn't end there. In 1967 the former New York City Ballet star published The Ballet Cook Book, a mix of ballet history, food stories and the pièce de résistance: recipes collected from over 90 famous NYCB dancers and choreographers including George Balanchine (her then husband), Jacques d'Amboise, Melissa Hayden and Allegra Kent.

Why bring this up now? This year marks the 50th anniversary of her book's publication, and in celebration, food scholar Meryl Rosofsky is curating a program exploring the context of the book. Held on November 5 and 6 at the Guggenheim Museum, the program will include live performance excerpts with roles originated by Ballet Cook Book contributors including Balanchine's The Four Temperaments, Bugaku, Stars and Stripes and Western Symphony as well as a panel conversation with d'Amboise and Kent (both of whom were at the original book signing) as well as current NYCB principals Jared Angle and Adrian Danchig-Waring, both talented cooks.That certainly seems like plenty of excitement to us, but attendees can also stop into the Guggneheim's Wright Restaurant to taste select dishes from The Ballet Cook Book including Le Clercq's Chicken Vermouth, Balanchine's Slow Beet Borschok, Hayden's Potato Latkes and Kent's Walnut Apple Cake.

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Studio to Street

Don't expect to catch Simone Messmer wearing a leotard—at least, not for company class. “Ballet class is for me," she says. “It happens every day, so it turns into a major part of how you set yourself up for the day and how you're feeling. I think it's really important to take control of that." In class, the Miami City Ballet principal prefers comfortable separates with clean lines and long sleeves. When it's time for rehearsal, she'll bring out her leotards and tights. “And I tend to bring the skirt or tutu that's appropriate for the role. I try to start right away, to get a feeling for it," she says.

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The Wortham Theater Center, where Houston Ballet performs, after Hurricane Harvey. Photo Courtesy Nancy Wozny.

After Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston Ballet's facilities and damaged its home theater, the Wortham Center, the company wasted no time finding temporary rehearsal space and rescheduling its first two programs of the season at the nearby Hobby Center. But today, the Texas company faced another major blow: The Wortham Center announced that it will be closed for repairs until at least mid-May. That means Houston Ballet now needs to reschedule more than half of its season—including 34 performances of Nutcracker.


A scene from Stanton Welch's "Nutcracker. Photo via Facebook.

As everyone in the dance world knows, Nutcracker is a major financial lifeline for American ballet companies. Houston's production, choreographed by artistic director Stanton Welch with sets and costumes by Tim Goodchild, was brand-new last year. (Fortunately, the company moved its sets and costumes to a safe location during the storm.) Finding space for a month-long run will surely not be easy, and the Hobby Center looks booked. While there's no news of a backup plan yet, here's hoping Houston Ballet will receive some Nutcracker magic—and be able to find a new home for this year's production. We'll keep you posted once they do.

Pointe Stars
Karina González in "Romeo and Juliet" choreographed by Stanton Welch. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy of Houston Ballet.

As told to Julie Diana

Juliet is one of my favorite roles—you go through every emotion in just three acts. I had done different versions of the ballet before, but it was an amazing opportunity when my director Stanton Welch created the role for me. I watched a lot of videos to prepare and struggled at the beginning because I was trying to copy what other ballerinas had done. It took me a while to find my own way. But now, every step comes from deep inside.

I love that Juliet starts as an innocent little girl, playing with the nurse like she's her best friend. When she goes to the ball, she sees this person that moves her world around. I'm married now, and know what it means to give everything to someone and make decisions that will change your life. And because of the love you have for that person, it is worth it.


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Pointe Stars
Kamikusa and Luzemberg Santana in "Nutcracker." Photo by Rejean Brandt, Courtesy RWB.

As the Red Girl in Mark Godden's Dracula last November, Royal Winnipeg Ballet's Yoshiko Kamikusa proved a perfect blend of strength and seduction. She sailed effortlessly through Godden's demanding choreography, melting through her upper body and whipping off fouettés with fearless energy. "It's a high-stamina piece, but I was really happy to be given that role," Kamikusa says. "It's a dance that represents the sultry lust of the Dracula story."

Born in Japan, Kamikusa moved to Hawaii when she was 6, starting ballet lessons a year later. By age 12, her family had relocated to Vancouver, where she began training with Vera Solovyeva and Nikolai Levitsky, then faculty members at the Goh Ballet Academy. She later frequented the international competition circuit, and was a finalist at Varna and Helsinki IBCs. She joined RWB as an apprentice in 2013, becoming a corps member the following season.


Photo by David Cooper, Courtesy RWB.

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